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Hispanic Influence in U.S. Soccer

Fernando Clavijo needs only look across the border to realize how American soccer has grown since his days on the U.S. National Team.

“Look at Mexico,” said the 57-year-old Clavijo, FC Dallas’ technical director. “Mexico scouts as much in the United States as they do in Mexico. Mexicans, Mexican Americans. We are competing with Mexico for players, which is something that we never did before. Mexico never thought before that the quality was here.”

It’s an evolving landscape that has seen increasing numbers of Hispanics in Major League Soccer, the U.S. National Teams and through segments of the U.S. Development Academy. It’s also seen the emergence of some of the early pioneers, like Clavijo, Hugo Perez, Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna – all members of the 1994 FIFA World Cup squad – into influential coaching and administrative roles.

Unlike themselves, Perez, a native of El Salvador, or Clavijo, a native of Uruguay, both point out that the new generation is overwhelmingly American born, not just brought across the border by their parents.

The redesigned landscape is the result of several factors, they explain, which among them are: a surge in immigration to the United States from Latin America, the success of the U.S. in international play and Major League Soccer, and the increase in development programs from youth through the lower professional and semi-pro divisions.

Besides Clavijo’s position with Dallas, Perez coaches the U.S. Under-15 Boys’ National Team, Ramos heads the U.S. U-20 MNT and Reyna is Clavijo’s counterpart at NYC FC, the 20th team in MLS that will begin play in 2015. Additionally, Oscar Pareja is the coach at the Colorado Rapids.

Some have opined and speculated that the changes – not only at the playing level but also at the administrative – could manifest themselves in a shift, alteration or blending of playing styles from a more Northern European style, a legacy of American soccer dominated by European immigration from the late 1800s and early 1900s, to a more Latin flavor.

“To separate from Latin to European is too black and white. There’s a lot more gray, a lot more shades,” Ramos said. “If Spain is Latin, and Norway is European, and everything else is in between, personally, I’d like my team to play more like Spain or Brazil than Norway or Sweden.

“That’s just my personal taste. We have players in this country that are adaptable, skillful players.”

And those players still come from all ethnic backgrounds, whether European, Latin or South American, even Asian and African, Clavijo said.

Blending styles, however, is probably less of an issue for administrators like Clavijo than the challenge of scouting and recruiting young players, and managing their development.

Perez, too, has concerns other than coaching.

While saying he believes that those who come from a culture where soccer is the only sport, not just the main one, may be an advantage in terms of fathers teaching sons and being indoctrinated at an early age, it also can create unreasonable expectations.

“It’s our responsibility to provide the best environment, but not all Hispanics can play,” Perez said. “Some parents think just because they’re Latino…You have to tell them their kid is not necessarily going to play for the National Team.

“I used to train with my dad. It was part of the culture. I grew up with it. For many guys that I played with on the National Team, it was the same thing. That’s an advantage many ‘anglo kids’ didn’t have. But now they’re watching Real Madrid, Arsenal and they’re catching up.”

At Dallas, that means Clavijo has to ride herd over youngsters and make sure they are doing more than improving the dribble with their off foot. While being Hispanic may give him credibility within the Latin community others might not have, it also makes Clavijo feel a deep responsibility.

“The ownership in Dallas has dedicated a lot of resources to develop these kids as soccer players, and if not, we have a social obligation to the kids and their families,” he said. “I have to pass that message onto the kids. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to do that.”

Realizing that the overwhelming majority of the players brought into FC Dallas’ youth academy probably will never turn pro – like nearly all major professional sports, Clavijo realizes his job is not just as a soccer administrator trying to mold players for the “Hoops” first team.

“I understand where (the Hispanic) community is coming from,” he said. “But most of them will never make it. That’s why 90 percent of the time I push the kids to study more than play. Education is for life.”

On the field, the “grays” and “shades” of playing styles referred to by Ramos have come at a slower pace than Clavijo and others would like.

“It’s very difficult, not only on the field,” said Clavijo, who played both indoors and outdoors, and also coached indoors and outdoors. “If you look back at the federation and clubs between then and now, there’s not many Hispanic coaches around. We’ve not done a good job mixing.

“We need to find our own identity, mix the European and South American style into our style.”

Clavijo, Ramos, Perez and Reyna all noted that they scour the country to find players off all stripes, realizing that the best players can come from anywhere from any ethnic background, like Richmond, Va. area-born midfielder Danny Cruz of the Philadelphia Union, or Seattle Sounders FC forward Clint Dempsey from Nacagdoches, Texas, 175 miles southeast of Dallas near the Louisiana border.

In some ways it’s a double-edge sword, according to Perez. The infrastructure that has evolved over the last 20 years is incomparable to what existed when he started playing as a teenager in the United States, making development of players much better.

However, the popularity of the sport has increased so much, so many more kids are playing making it difficult to identify all the good players.

“In general, there has been a change,” Perez said. “The structure of putting together developmental programs for younger players has changed dramatically: academies, youth programs…the structure is huge.”

That change has only worked in the favor of Hispanic players, he said.

“The opportunities that the National Team are giving to Hispanics is huge now,” Perez added. “MLS also has been a positive for U.S. soccer. When we talk about Hispanics, in 25 years, the population has gotten bigger. The kids being born here in America, by parents from Central America, South America, it’s part of culture, the kids grow up in that culture. It’s why we’re seeing more Latino players.

“When I played, if you went to LA, or New York, you had a lot Hispanics. I grew up playing in an adult league. It’s just going to increase. The talent in this country is huge. We don’t even know how huge it is.”